Territory mum on furnace liability

When it comes to the safety of residential oil furnaces, there's one thing Yukon government officials have no interest in discussing. It is legal liability.

When it comes to the safety of residential oil furnaces, there’s one thing Yukon government officials have no interest in discussing.

It is legal liability.

The Department of Justice’s lawyers prepared a six-page legal opinion on the subject in November 2007.

But when the Yukon News recently requested this opinion through an access-to-information request, the entire document arrived redacted, save for the letterhead and concluding confidentiality notice.

However, territorial lawyers had sufficient concerns that Joanne Harach, a policy analyst with the Yukon Housing Corporation, dug up the document two months ago to share with government bigwigs.

“I believe it has relevance to the work that all of us are doing on this subject so I’m attaching it here,” Harach wrote in an email. “I think we should consider this advice in crafting messages going forward.”

Recipients of the message included senior staff with the housing corporation, the Department of Community Services and cabinet communications.

The legal opinion was accompanied by a three-page memo from the Yukon Housing Corporation, also produced in November 2007. It too was completely blacked out, except for the letterhead and page numbers.

For both the legal opinion and memo, the government cited solicitor-client privilege as its reason for withholding information. “Generally, government and departments don’t release legal opinions,” said Matt King, spokesman for Community Services.

Since five Porter Creek residents died of carbon monoxide poisoning in January, government officials have stressed that homeowners should ensure their residential furnaces are properly maintained.

They’ve been much less willing to acknowledge that the government may share the blame. Yet the territory received its fair share of warnings that many of the Yukon’s oil furnaces were unsafe long before the Porter Creek tragedy.

Between 2007 and 2010, Rod Corea, of NRG Resources, inspected 305 residential furnaces in the territory. Only four met the building code.

In Corea’s concluding report, he warned that “self-regulation has failed to provide minimum safety standards, and indeed has put the Yukon at risk in their oil-heated industry.”

“The time is now. We have to act,” Corea concluded in a video presentation in 2010. “We have to ensure the installation of oil equipment is done by qualified technicians, and inspected by qualified inspectors, to ensure the installations are safe and reliable and to the long-term benefit of the Yukon.

“Hopefully, you’ll be able to take action to do them in very short order, before something unfortunate happens.”

Rather than heed this advice, government officials buried the report and video, knowing that Corea’s views clashed with those held by the bosses at Community Services, who have resisted regulating the industry.

Following the Porter Creek deaths, Community Services officials downplayed Corea’s findings, by suggesting his studies were skewed by focusing on older furnaces or those installed without a permit.

Not true. Corea also inspected new installations and he found them to be “as poor as, or worse than, older installations.”

Newly installed residential oil furnaces are supposed to be checked by a building inspector, under Whitehorse bylaws, and, as of 2010, a territorial regulation. But that never happened at 1606 Centennial St. where Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their two children, and their boarder, Donald McNamee, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in January.

The Porter Creek house is owned by 10785 Yukon Ltd., a company that lists Fae Jamieson and Geraldine Tuton as its directors. They have so far not commented on the situation.

An investigation by the territory’s fire marshal afterwards found numerous building code infractions at the site of the carbon monoxide poisonings.

The old masonry chimney lacked a metal liner and had become partially plugged with rubble, and the burner was underpowered and improperly installed, among other problems.

These deadly ingredients created an ice plug in the chimney, causing odourless, poisonous gas to flood the home.

The clearest explanation for the government’s reluctance to regulate the oil furnace trade has come from Jim Kenyon, the former housing minister.

According to him, the government faces a chicken-and-egg conundrum: with so few furnace mechanics possessing nationally recognized credentials, new rules would put many out of work.

But if a lack of training is the problem, the government hasn’t done much to improve the situation.

In 2009 and 2010, Yukon College offered a pilot program to train oil-burner technicians. It produced 10 graduates.

Of those, six went on to complete apprenticeships and pass their nationally recognized exam to become journeyman mechanics.

But the course ended, along with the federal stimulus spending that paid for it. The college is now looking at running another course.

Four years ago, a committee of experts recommended that the territory regulate the oil furnace trade. The government never did so.

Following the Porter Creek deaths, the government announced it would strike a new committee “so that we can have a made-in-Yukon solution that works not only in downtown Whitehorse, but also in communities such as Old Crow, Mayo, Carmacks and Watson Lake,” said Housing Minister Scott Kent.

The committee is headed by Marc Perreault, an acting vice-president of the housing corporation and a certified oil mechanic.

It has received more than 20 submissions from groups and individuals on the subject, he said in an interview this week. The committee is expected to release its recommendations by mid-summer.

“We’re moving forward, prudently, cautiously, but we recognize the importance of this. We want to do it properly.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

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